Anti-Interventionist Think Tank’s Debut is a Dud

The Quincy Institute’s kickoff conference lacked any dramatic moment announcing the arrival of a powerful new voice for radical change in U.S. policy, writes Gareth Porter. 


By Gareth Porter
Special to Consortium News

Given the current epochal political upheaval against entrenched political-economic elites driven in part by popular discontent over endless U.S. wars, the debut of the anti-interventionist Quincy Institute on Wednesday should have been an explosive event.

But it seemed more like a toy pop gun than a political bombshell.

Perhaps that was the intention of Quincy’s leadership.  The organization, whose full name is the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has eschewed an all-out attack on the national security elite in favor of the catch-phrase “realism and restraint.” That doesn’t raise the flag of political struggle against the existing policymaking system but rather suggests it will merely nibble at its edges.

David Petraeus, a two-star general during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, at right, with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace.

So, one shouldn’t be shocked that Quincy’s first policy event was a partnership with Foreign Policy magazine, whose editorial slant is decidedly aligned with the interests of the dominant national security elite.  It was Foreign Policy magazine that advanced the idea of having former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus as the big name draw for the conference, according to people familiar with the origins of the conference.

Quincy needed a way to highlight the weaknesses of the status quo elite’s ideas and the power of its own alternative, and a debate between Petraeus and a highly articulate opponent of his position and argument would have done that. That was a talking point for the defense of Petraeus as a representative of the war system offered by one Quincy officer in advance of the conference.

But Petraeus was not about to agree to any such exercise.  He is used to speaking from a position of power and not having to defend against sharp rebuttals and tough arguments. A one-on-one debate with an articulate opponent would have been exposed him even more clearly as a vacuous windbag. 

Softballs for Petraeus

Instead of witnessing such a riveting confrontation, the audience got Petraeus being fed softball questions from FP Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Tupperman and giving carefully memorized answers, including what he called “five big ideas we should have learned” (examples: “Ungoverned spaces will be exploited by Islamist extremists;” “The United State has to lead.”)  [This from Petraeus who once said the U.S. was right to partner  with al-Qaeda in Syria.]

Foreign Policy’s Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Tupperman. (Twitter)

That format allowed Petraeus to answer Tupperman’s question whether the United States can continue to use military force to maintain the “liberal world order” in light of the popular support for President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders by claiming smugly, “I’m for restraint as well,” then adding the lamest line of the day (which he apparently thought was clever): “We should be for more restraint until we shouldn’t be.”

Then the Petraeus segment was over, with Tupperman observing that there was no time left for audience questioning of the man still venerated in a regime of worshipful media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan as the man that had saved us from defeat in Iraq and had been successful in Afghanistan until he wasn’t successful.  The mysterious failure of Tupperman to have left time for questions averted any possibility of someone in the audience recalling how Petraeus had played a crucial role in the unfolding of sectarian violence in Iraq by arming and training a sectarian Shiite militia — the Wolf Brigade — that was then sent into virtually every major Sunni population center in 2004-05.

Then Representative Ro Khanna, the smartest and most articulate congressional advocate for a non-interventionist viewpoint, laid out in an exchange with Cato Institute supporter Will Ruger a sharp critique of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, starting with the enormous boost that U.S. interventions gave to the previously weak al Qaeda, which went from a presence in three countries before 9/11 to 23 countries today.  

Debate Stifled

It was a thoughtful and persuasive case for a sharp turn in U.S. policy.  But there was no real debate with Petraeus. In the absence of debate, the conference lacked any dramatic moment announcing the arrival of a powerful new voice for radical change in U.S. policy.

Much of the rest of the conference, moreover, had a tenor and pace reminiscent of many dozens of Washington think tank events on national security policy attended by this writer for years before giving them up a few years ago.  That’s because it consisted of brief and almost always polite exchanges between advocates of new policies and representatives of centrist think tanks that are deeply enmeshed in those policies and the institutional interests underlying them.

(Quincy Institute)

The closing session pitted Quincy Institute Deputy Director Stephen Wertheim against Rosa Brooks of New America and Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution, both of whom rejected the very idea of ending America’s existing wars.  They argued that the U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria are really “counter-terrorism operations” rather than “wars.”  Brooks even uttered the word identifying her as a member of the national security elite in good standing by calling for a “robust” policy.

The panel billed as “A New Vision for America’s Role in the World” didn’t actually offer that at all. That phrase turned out to be simply a convenient catch-all for the views of foreign policy advisers to both Bernie Sanders (Matt Duss) and former Vice President Joe Biden (former NSC official Julianne Smith), neither of whom articulated anything resembling a new policy vision.

Ironically, on the day that Politico’s “Morning Defense” reported Sanders’ clear lead in the Democratic race had triggered fears among military contractors of “an unprecedented threat to the status quo,” the most daring suggestion from Duss was that Sanders was for diplomacy with Iran.

Military ‘Wants Out’

There were a few moments that unexpectedly elevated the discussion well above the usual humdrum Washington think tank chatter.  In a panel on the Middle East independent journalist Mark Perry, who has long had access to senior military officers on background, reported that his military contacts “want out” of the wars in the Middle East.

He added, moreover, that Trump has those officers’ trust, because they believe he wants out, too.  But Perry’s most important contribution was to challenge the whole idea that the United States is capable of accomplishing anything positive with its serial military interventions in the Middle East.  “We can’t do this,” said Perry, “so what are we doing?”

No Full, Unfettered Analysis

The lesson of Quincy’s debut seems reasonably clear: You can’t hope to disrupt the national security elite’s grip on policy by playing by the establishment’s rules. Foreign Policy was never going to agree to a format that would permit a direct confrontation over the key issues, much less, a full, unfettered analysis of the system of power that underlies that elite’s public role in defending America’s endless wars.

An organization devoted to attacking its illicit and increasingly unpopular policies can only gain traction by offering an analysis that will appeal to the anti-elite sentiments that have already shaken the U.S. political system to its foundations.

That would mean going beyond “realism and restraint” and talking about the need for fundamental change in the system of national security institutions themselves.  Of course, taking that lesson on board might not be in line with the thinking of major funders. It could imply a major reorganization and even a much smaller staff.  But if it doesn’t heed the lesson of its initial conference, Quincy is likely to find that the real action in bringing about change in U.S. foreign and policy is coming from political forces involved in the larger national power struggle.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian on U.S. national security policy and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2012.  His most recent book, with John Kiriakou, is “The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War,” published on Feb 4.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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20 comments for “Anti-Interventionist Think Tank’s Debut is a Dud

  1. Antiwar7
    March 2, 2020 at 09:26

    The Quincy Institute is a damp squib if there ever was one. What a disappointment.

    It’s incredible, really, that people, in public, with a straight face, can justify policies of mass murder.

    • OlyaPola
      March 3, 2020 at 03:45

      “It’s incredible, really, that people, in public, with a straight face, can justify policies of mass murder.”

      Some hold that practice makes perfect whilst some are convinced the price is/was/will be worth it.

      Perhaps it is incredible that some believe that “It’s incredible, really, that people, in public, with a straight face, can justify policies of mass murder.” thereby ensuring others opportunities to render such believers useful fools ?

  2. Sam F
    March 1, 2020 at 20:12

    Debate between factional “think-tanks” of the MIC and interventionists is not very productive, because they are propagandists with no interest in truth.

    The US has few security problems that they did not create, and could at any time improve its security by re-purposing 80% of the MIC to developing infrastructure in the poorest nations. Had it done so since WWII, we would have rescued half of humanity from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease, a true American Century. Instead we killed over 20 million innocents, and mortgaged our futures to serve these greedy enemies of democracy.

    The restoration of democracy requires us to re-purpose most of the MIC, prohibit executive wars and surveillance, end the NSC, eliminate extreme wealth concentrations, and amend the Constitution to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited individual donations.

  3. robert e williamson jr
    February 29, 2020 at 17:15

    What else could be expected from a typical think tank, simply another conventional institution most likely taking it’s lead from the Council on Foreign Relations as so many of these organizations do. Can you say the Billionaire Lackeys Club.

    The way I see it most of the “think tanks” spend there time trying to fashion some bogus concept and sell it the American mainstream. The intelligence friendly subservient MSM. gobbles this BS up and especially during campaign periods, (now constantly) fosters discussion of issues many times not at the top of any list of what mainstream America desires of change. BS+BS=BS .

    These activities have been very successful, especially in the past at distorting that window of political discourse, which is the range of political policies acceptable to the mainstream population at any one given time. See the Overton Window.

    Never before in American history has the mainstream been so endangered than now. The collection of all personal data by the NSA is a constant direct threat to the welfare of the mainstream population who will be held accountable by an unaccountable government, see the current administration, should they decide to demand more change than the NSA and others in the intelligence community are comfortable with.

    Heads up, Department of Health and Human Services has proven beyond a doubt the danger they themselves are to the nation by the way it bungled the evacuation of Americans from China. These workers were not quarantined and allowed to fly commercial back to their homes in the U.S. In light of US experience with controlling Ebola one must wonder just how bad things really are in the world of Trump! You cannot make this stuff up!

  4. Moi
    February 29, 2020 at 16:53

    I’m currently rewatching the Ken Burns 10 part documentary on Vietnam.

    The thing that gut-punches me again and again with each episode are the constant US lies, to itself and to its people. And it has _never_ changed since Vietnam.

    That lying has become pathological with all its mentally disturbed connotations.

    I cannot for the life of me recall how many times I’ve been lied to. Cuba, Chile, El Salvador, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraqi WMD, Iranian WMD, Syria, Libya, Guantanamo Bay, Russia, China, Ukraine, Venezuela, Bolivia, Assange … the list is endless. And that list grows daily. By the minute.

    Nobody in their right minds should believe _anything_ that comes from the US administration or media.

    Fool me once – shame on you. Fool me 55,226 times – shame on ?

    The US doesn’t need a change of government so much as a change of ethos. Regrettably Sanders is unlikely to be any different – just same old, same old.

    • elmerfudzie
      March 2, 2020 at 20:21

      Moi, Spot on! We’re living in a parallel universe, akin to those cognitive dissonance(s) experienced by many citizens of the former Soviet Union. Where every bit of so called “news” must be couched in the same context rank and file Comrades did when browsing the Pravda Newspaper. If for example, the writer published something positive about environmental regulation and diligent oversight, the reader promptly dismissed it by believing that the opposite must be true or perhaps, was at one time true but most likely isn’t today (however we’ll all pretend it is). The same cogency was repeated over and over during and after releasing the 911 Commission Report. The famous Nobel Peace Prize screenwriter and playwright, Harold Pinter said during his last video reportage, something(s) can be true and false at the same time, by observing the object or person, at different angles or perspectives. Speaking for myself, I share this this predisposition with Mr Pinter particularly when listening to experts, retired Intel, politicians… all masters of the limited hangout, they are for the most part dubious, devious and usually disgusting creatures.

    • JeffB
      March 3, 2020 at 12:41

      I get the same sick chuckle out of these “think tank” exchanges that I get when I hear the outrage, outrage I say, by pols and pundits acting stupefied that any government would dare interfere with another country’s elections! How dare they!?!?! Beside the fact our own intelligence community is the biggest perpetrator, these folks are raging against social media as the main driver of US election decisions. And of course the 55,226 elections around the world the US has compromised in the “national interest”. Yes, it does hurt when the chickens come back to roost.

  5. elmerfudzie
    February 29, 2020 at 13:49

    Unfortunately Mark Perry isn’t talking to the right people. By right people I mean those three star field commanders, on active duty and in positions of authority, who could have but did not waltz into the relevant congressional subcommittee hearing(s) to spout the truth, these provocation tests must come to an end! For example; in October 2018, drones attacked Russia’s Khmeymim airbase in Syria, accomplished with the aid of a U.S. Poseidon-8. More recently, a seemingly innocuous event occurred a few days ago where video evidence clearly shows a Russian Infantry mobility Tiger vehicle trying to regroup with its column only to be shoved off the road by one of our M-ATV ‘s as it passed by. There have been other incidences as well, any one of which could have resulted in a reaction not unlike the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in part responsible for stoking the flames that brought about World War I.

    Erdogan will not abandon his contractual arrangements to keep the the S-400 Russian anti-aircraft missile systems. We can count on that Ottoman to open the floodgates by permitting refugees from the Syrian conflict to enter Europe. Do I need to provide a recap and overview of the Mideast situation? Or remind CONSORTIUMNEWS readers of Putin’s speech to the UN back in 2015 where he was quoted as saying, and I quote him, “do you realize what you’ve done?”

    The Western banksters are up to their usual M.O. Sanctions against the Central Bank of Syria have been in place since 2004 and were justified by accusations of money laundering. This allegation serves as best example around for the pot calling the kettle black. Financial manipulations against Syria are inspired by authorizations built into the so called, “Patriot Act” compelling the Syrian government to turn to Russia’s Gazprombank for economic reconstruction assistance. history repeats itself again, western bankers against eastern bankers. These same money changers and credit issuers were responsible for two world war wars. Will the citizenry at large permit them to start a third world war? If we drop our vigilance again, eight hundred million people in the Western Occident and USA will perish within a few days.

    One of my grandmother’s observations comes to mind, the “yellow hand” (China) will rule the world some day. Well grandma, if you can hear me from the grave, yes I agree but it will be only by default and the time it will last, will be short.

  6. Jeff Harrison
    February 29, 2020 at 11:08

    The other force for change in Washington’s behavior is going to come from all the foreign countries which are slowly getting around to telling the US to go piss up a rope. The US has demonstrated that it is incapable of leading except by way of violence. And that is a losing hand.

  7. Buffalo_Ken
    February 29, 2020 at 07:41

    There was a pretty decent detailed “preview” of this meeting that you can find on the Ron Paul Institute for Peace site. It seems as if it was a fairly accurate assessment. Whenever possible it is always helpful to find a source putting out their opinion prior to an event – then after the event occurs you can judge their accuracy.

    I tried to post a link earlier, but just realized that links are not allowed in comments here and I fully understand that.

    Anyhow, I’m glad this “rollout” seemed to be a dud – I’m guessing it was nothing more than putting a new face on old ideas whose time are coming to an end. Some things are evident and I think the body of evidence has grown so much in particular due to the “show proceedings” that Julian Assange just had too suffer through – on top of all the other nonsense, he has also had to so greatly suffer by virtue of his UNFAIR incarceration. It doesn’t take genius to see it for what it is. To me it is like a seed has been planted with this intolerable “show” put on by whom? “The Elite”? “The State”? What a sick joke that makes me puke, and it is NOT funny to allow suffering of innocence, nor can it be tolerated. I’m indignant to the nth degree and I don’t believe that I’m alone in this sentiment.

    I hope wiser minds prevail.

  8. OlyaPola
    February 29, 2020 at 07:33

    “Think tank”

    Words are catalysts of connotations and tank can refer to various phenomena some of which can move and some of which tend to remain stationary.

    A common feature of tank-ness is some assay of enclosure and consequent perceived security.

    However enclosure and security tend to be prejudicial to thought and more encouraging of belief.

    Consequently perhaps to avoid misrepresentation the phenomena should be designated belief tanks ?

  9. OlyaPola
    February 29, 2020 at 06:16

    “That would mean going beyond “realism and restraint” and talking about the need for fundamental change in the system of national security institutions themselves. ”

    If strategies are not aware of purpose then attempts at implementation are rendered revolutions around a fixed point.

    As to purpose, perhaps entry portals of what is the United States of America and how is it facilitated would increase illumination in strategic design.

    Revolutions around a fixed point have various utilities including but not limited to affording those so revolving to revisit the “landscape”.

    Revolving can be disorientating leading some to ponder – why are we revolving? : the opponents’ attempts of encouraging revolutions around a fixed point encouraging and facilitating opportunities of “lateral thinking”.

  10. Sam F
    February 28, 2020 at 20:41

    Debate with “think-tanks” of the MIC and interventionists is not productive. The US has no security problems that they have not created, and could at any time improve its security by re-purposing 80% of the MIC to developing infrastructure in the poorest nations. Had it done so since WWII, we would have rescued the poorest half of humanity from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease, a true American Century. Instead we killed over 20 million innocents and mortgaged our children to serve the psychopaths of greed.

    The solution is not only to dump the “stink tanks,” eliminate the 2000-member NSC, re-purpose 80% of the MIC, prohibit acts of war or surveillance by the executive branch, tax the rich to leave only a middle class, and demand amendments to the Constitution restricting funding of mass media and elections to limited individual donations.

    We also desperately need a fourth branch of federal government, which I am calling the College of Policy Debate, to conduct moderated textual debates of policy issues in all regions, protecting and representing every viewpoint, in which all views are challenged and must respond, and all parties must come to common terms. The CPD will produce commented debate summaries available to the public with mini-quizzes and discussion groups. It will have a dramatized lower level to educate those unprepared to study. Without that rational analysis and access to the core debates, we do not have a democracy at all, we are all no more than the fools of oligarchy opportunists, demagogues, and scammers, who must be actively excluded from all government capacities.

    • OlyaPola
      March 2, 2020 at 10:36

      “Debate with “think-tanks” of the MIC and interventionists is not productive.”

      Absolutes don’t exist in practice including in regard to belief tanks.

      Belief tanks to seek to evangelise in the hope of “implementation”.

      One of the beliefs of belief tanks is the belief in their own significance; another belief of belief tanks is in the utility of revolutions around a fixed points.

      Consequently with the ocassional minimum addition of catalysts including but not restricted to doing “nothing”, belief tanks can increase their assay of complicity in their own demise and that of their disciples.

  11. Skip Scott
    February 28, 2020 at 17:29

    A more in-depth discussion might also touch on the vision of “waging peace” in a multi-polar world versus a globalized uni-polar empire serving plutocrats, with the US military (and the CIA) playing the role of enforcer. It all comes down to who gets to be rich. The MIC is gobbling up untold trillions while nearly half of the world’s population lives in poverty, and 15% live in poverty here at home. They don’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us because we are killing them.

    • OlyaPola
      March 2, 2020 at 11:06

      “They don’t hate us for our freedom, they hate us because we are killing them.”

      Hate is a form/presentation of emotion dissipating agency.

      A component of the opponents’ hopes, which they believe to be strategies, is the attempt at encouragement of emoting in others.

      Internationally an increasing sum of some perceive the social relations self-represented as “The United States of America” as an existential threat requiring transcendence – some of those seeking to maintain in modulated form the social relations self-represented as “The United States of America” perceive almost all others as existential threats, including but not restricted to those who believe that they are part of the “we are killing them”.

      Some understand that emulation is a form of revolving around a fixed point and that sustainable lateral processes of transcendence are partly facilitated through the portal – how to drown a drowning man with the minimum of blowback ?

      Hate is a facilitator of self-destruction and hence hate is best left to opponents, and a source of opportunity to the opponents’ interlocuters.

    • Skip Scott
      March 3, 2020 at 09:16

      Olyapola’s creators-

      Your algorithm thingy still needs more tweaking.

  12. February 28, 2020 at 16:47

    Just pathetic.

    Another organization with more money than it knows what to do with.

    I suppose just the name, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, should serve as a warning: expect nothing here.

    Another bunch of guys playing at being independent academics in a subsidized opinion factory.

    All these guys from American think-tanks remind me of actors wearing white lab coats in television commercials, pretending to be doctors or scientists recommending the best headache remedy.

  13. Oscar Peterson
    February 28, 2020 at 16:45

    Sad–but not surprising–to hear. I wonder how long Andrew Bacevich will last there. I also wonder what stipulations Soros and Koch have placed on their support.

    Bacevich has already said he doesn’t want to touch Israel and its role in our policy, so how serious a relook at US foreign policy could QI possibly do?

    It’s all so Orwellian.

    • March 1, 2020 at 12:09

      I guess both Soros and Koch are experienced businessmen, so the stipulations are under a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

Comments are closed.